Azeris: “Let’s Talk!”

While Putin’s proposal to place ABM radar systems in Azerbaijan took the Bushites by surprise, the suggestion appears to delight the Azeris. It sounds as if the Azeris are ready to engage in bilateral talks under one condition: “its own national interests must be taken into account by both Moscow and Washington.”

Good luck. Amid the potential Russian and the US wrangling over the who, whats, and hows of installing radar systems at Gabala, one can imagine Azerbaijan having a tough time squeezing their concerns into the debate. Yes, while Azeeri foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov may think that “It is not possible to undertake any actions without us” and that “both Russia and the US accept our position, and we are ready for negotiations.” The devil will be in the to be negotiated details if, and I say if, the plan goes forward.

Apparently Putin’s raising of the idea during talks with Bush wasn’t the first time the Azeri option has come up. Mammadyarov and Sergei Lavrov discussed the idea during the the latter’s May 21-22 visit to Azerbaijan. And a Moscow diplomat is said to have mentioned it to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in late April. While Azeri talks with Washington are still “rudimentary” there is no doubt that the issue will come up during the Azeri-Washington talks in July. Perhaps Putin’s announcement was a way to drum up some publicity. Or it could suggest that there is a tacit agreement to explore the idea already in the works. Anyone’s guess is as good as mine.

It also appears that some in Azerbaijan see the deal as a potential geopolitical coming coming out party for the small Caucasian nation. Aydin Mirzazade, Deputy chairman of the Azeri Parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, thinks that it could “strengthen the geopolitical position of Azerbaijan, since the station belongs to our country. Azerbaijan will take part in the negotiations and will be able to defend its national interests. I think this idea is a potential political dividend for Azerbaijan.”

It could. Or it could put Azerbaijan in a real awkward position when the two great powers intensify their love spats. Even so, depsite any problems the plan might cause Azerbaijan, in the words of Rasim Musabekov, a pro-opposition political analyst, the Caucausian nation has “has nothing to lose here. The joint use of Gabala radar station by the Americans and Russians would mean diversification of this base and would increase the strategic weight of Azerbaijan.”

At the least they will be able to wag their middle finger at longtime foe Armenia while standing beside Putin and Bush. After all, the deal might get Azerbijian the ear of Moscow and the US over Karabakh. “Azerbaijan will have the right to demand taking its interests into account. It may touch the issue of the Karabakh conflict and also security guarantees in regard to third countries,” Musabekov added. There is no doubt that the “third country” in question is Armenia.